Friday, December 7, 2012

Chance Encounters, Near Misses


"Would you mind trading places?" the man standing across the aisle asked me. "You've got the seat next to my wife."

We were in Cancún boarding a Florida-bound flight a few weeks ago. My ticket said "9-C" and his "9-D." We traded places so he could be next to his wife and a friend, who were seated in the center and window seats next to my assigned aisle seat. He was a tall foreigner, probably American, traveling with his Mexican wife and several others, including his daughter, son-in-law and mother-in-law. There were seven in the group, sprinkled in our row and the row in front of us. They talked back and forth, so it was impossible not to overhear that they were headed north to join a cruise in Fort Lauderdale.

I thought no more about them until ten days later when I boarded my return flight from Fort Lauderdale to Cancún. I again was in aisle seat 9-C, and to my surprise as I approached the row, the same man was standing in 9-D, as he had been on the previous flight. The whole group was headed home, in the same seats they'd had on the flight north. The man was looking expectantly down the aisle for the person assigned to 9-C so he could arrange a swap and sit by his wife, just as he'd done before.

This time I beat him to the punch. "Would you like to trade places?" I asked. "I believe I've got the seat next to your wife."

He immediately recognized me. After we chuckled and speculated for a few moments about what the odds must be against this sort of thing happening, we talked a bit about their cruise. When the plane was airborne, I had some time to think.

I realized that what had just occurred really is not terribly odd. These types of coincidences are actually common. It's just that much of the time when people with connections briefly pass by each other, we do not recognize the situation and never know what has happened. What was most odd in this case was, I think, that we recognized each other.

Exemplifying the point, during that same Florida visit I spent time with my cousin Greg, whom until a few months ago I had never met, nor even known existed. Due to a family misunderstanding in the 1950's, his mother, my mom's older sister, lost touch with the family in Baltimore and was never heard from again. Detective work on the part of another cousin, aided by Facebook, brought long-lost cousins together in Florida for the very first time earlier this year.

We discovered that my sister, who moved to Florida three years ago, lives only a fifteen minutes' drive away from Greg and his family. She has shopped routinely at the supermarket nearest her house, where incredibly, our cousin works as a manager. They may have seen each other many times, with no inkling that they were related. And we learned that our two families also had lived only a two-hour drive apart for four years in the early 1970's, complete oblivious to each others' existence.

Even stranger was the fact that my mother and Greg's dad, who is the brother-in-law Mom never knew about, had lived simultaneously at the same nursing home for awhile earlier this year. They had probably seen each other passing in the halls or possibly said hello to each other without knowing the true story. And for that matter, sadly, when visiting his father there Greg may have seen my mother, his aunt, (who since has passed away) without knowing who she was.

And I've seen this sort of thing before. My first college room mate in Alaska graduated from the same Florida high school as I, and had lived seven or eight blocks from our home. We'd never crossed paths only because he was five years older and had left the area soon after graduating.

A couple of years later, I ran into a girl in Fairbanks whom I'd met and talked to once several years before, as we jostled in a jeep along rural roads in Colombia, where we went to do volunteer work.

Once on a beach in Portugal I conversed with a guy who was laying on the sand near me. We discovered to our great surprise that we both had been born in Ketchikan, Alaska. It turned out that I'd known his brother at the University of Alaska and we had common friends. Years later, although we had not kept in touch during the interim, we bumped into each other in a coffee shop in Juneau, Alaska, and picked up where we'd left off in Portugal years before.

Later I quit a photojournalism job in Anchorage and went south for a few months. Returning home aboard the Alaska State Ferry Columbia, the first night out I sat down in the ship's bar next to a guy who I was astounded to learn was moving north to fill the very position I'd left.

These are only a few of the many instances in which I have experienced chance meetings in circumstances that easily might not have occurred. I've run into friends in the oddest far-off places. I've also bumped into the same strangers time and again in different parts of the world. On numerous occasions I've met others who have close connections with my family, friends or places I know very well. Were I an extrovert, I am sure I'd have even more of these stories to tell.

What is interesting to speculate about is how many times we come very close to these meetings, but never quite make the connection. Twenty-five years after our meeting on the Alaska State Ferry, we recently discovered, my photographer friend was on vacation in Mérida, and stayed only a few blocks from my house. We had been out of contact and he didn't know I was here. We missed that opportunity.

Over time, and particularly when we travel, we briefly pass thousands of individuals, and to a fair percentage of these we may have some sort of connection. I have to conclude that these tangents to our lives are all around us and that near-misses happen fairly often.

What this boils down to is that when these meetings occur, the coincidences really aren't coincidences. We are all part of an incredibly complex social web of friends, family, less-intimate contacts, communities and places.

The world is a small place. We really are remarkably close to everyone else.


25 comments:

  1. A bit of Zen today. The over soul concept of Buddhism fits today's post well. The idea that we are connected to those around us from our past, present and into our future lives gives me comfort and dare I say, explains a lot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd not looked at it from the aspect of comfort, but you are right. The connectedness is comforting.

      In the interests of not turning everyone off with a long, long post, I did not include all the other coincidences, but they are many, and surprising. It's fascinating. I love to wonder about how many near-misses pass us by on a regular basis.

      Delete
  2. You see these coincidences because you are willing to talk with strangers. Far too many people do not -- and miss out on one of life's joys. The lesson that we are related to everyone on our paths through life. I think about that when I hear some people say: "I never talk to the person next to me on an airline flight." I have never sat next to someone on a flight who I did not find interesting. As you point out, sometimes we share prior experiences. And the conversation will be another.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I'm willing to talk, but I am not the most outgoing type. Sometimes I start the conversation, but often if the other person is quiet, we don't get beyond the small talk.

      When I do talk, though, I almost always find a common thread linking my life and that of a stranger. And many times the degrees of separation are surprisingly few.

      At any rate, finding connections and common interests with strangers is fascinating, and helps travel time pass quickly.

      Delete
  3. There have been a few interesting people on my travels, sittting next to me and, yes, many times changed seats for their favour, usually I just want to get to my destination, and read.
    Sometimes according to ah, m/f orientation, experiences can be different. It was very nice to meet a very nice English couple. We talked for hours and unbelievably so had a lot in common, and yes, travel time passed quickly, it's far and in between as far as I have experienced.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On planes I normally like to just relax and do something quiet by myself, like read or snooze. But I've come to the conclusion after thinking and writing about this subject, and now reading some of the comments, that I might really enjoy myself if I decide to talk more to strangers I find myself spending time with.

      Delete
    2. It is VERY enjoyable, if you find that draw with people.
      And if not there is always, the read/snooze feature :) .

      Delete
    3. I must admit, I LOVE to sleep on planes. If there is one thing that makes a flight zip by even better than an engaging conversation, it's a nap.

      Delete
  4. Marc, I must tell you that I enjoy your blog, which I found by way of my friend,Deb. I find your perspective to be very interesting! We spend 3 months in Merida, beginning in January. Wonderful place!!!! I live at the beach, and all of our houses have names on them....Mine is "Meant to Be", which tells you how I believe concerning these coincidences!! Great post!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. It looks as if you will be in Merida soon. I suspect we will run into each other around here.

      Delete
  5. Some of us travel through life seemingly alone. You've illustrated beautifully that this is not the case.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And the longer I live, the more I find that is true.

      Delete
  6. That was a very interesting, and thought provoking post Marc. It is,indeed,a small world!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I keep remembering more instances of this sort of thing happening years ago. I am still pondering what it all means.

      Delete
  7. I too, have had these kinds of experiences, but, not with relatives! Could it be that people of like minds travel the same paths often? Synchronicity is
    to me never happenstance, but, meant to be.

    Life is an adventure to be sure!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, an adventure it is for sure. I think in the future I am going to try to be more talkative when I travel or find myself spending time near strangers. More adventure is in store if only we make it happen.

      Delete
  8. A few years ago, we were flying from Virginia to San Francisco to celebrate Alan's 50th birthday. The 3rd person in our row was a lady from the wine country of CA. She immediately started asking us questions and before you know it, we were enjoying the most relaxed and enjoyable conversation that lasted the entire flight ( I'm certain to the displeasure of the passengers around us). We hated to leave her, knowing that we would likely not ever see her again. It felt like visiting an old friend that we had not seen for a long time. Most of the time we just settle in to our flights and read or doze. It is always a pleasant surprise when we meet someone that is so easy to engage in conversation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As I have mentioned above, I think I am going to try to be more communicative in these types of circumstances from now on. It couldn't hurt, and sometimes the payoffs are wonderful, as you have illustrated.

      Delete
  9. Hi Marc,
    Fun post. I've long been aware of "six degrees of separation" as urban legend, but you've caused me to look into the history of this phenomenon which we've all experienced, to some degree. Here's a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Six degrees" may be urban legend, but I believe that there is a good element of reality in this. Very often, at least in my case, I find if I really start talking to someone in North America, that there are as few as two or three.

      Delete
  10. Very interesting, Marc and Eric. For awhile I even believed that my iPod was "psychic with me", in that it would so often play songs that were kind of on my mind, even in a random shuffle mode.

    I'll not lose sight of this topic for a long time.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yes, these are curious happenings…. it happened to me, also. I was flying from New York's LaGuardia airport to Stockholm, Sweden to visit cousins never met before. I lived on a farm in Trevilians, VA.. a rural area between Charlottesville and Richmond. I settled myself down in the appointed seat next to a man and introduced myself.
    Imagine who it turned out to be?… my neighbor from his farm across the creek; a former pilot for one of the major airlines. He mentioned that his wife was sitting 5 rows back, so I immediately offered to change seats with her.
    It turns out he was making his last trip to the 'home country', because he was dying of cancer…a man only in his 50's. What a sad meeting up, but what a curious happening.

    ReplyDelete
  12. As a classic introvert, I find small talk painfully difficult but I'm going to try to make more of an effort. You just never know who you might be sitting beside.

    My most memorable connection was sitting beside Joanna's friend, Mary, on our last flight from Houston to Merida.

    ReplyDelete
  13. OH! Glad to see your new post Mark =)
    By the way Merida is hotter than Cancun. Am I right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. Merida is generally quite a bit warmer. Cancun gets the coastal breezes that keep temperatures moderate.

      Delete

I appreciate comments, but will delete comments that are rude, offensive or off topic. Unfortunately, due to the heavy volume of spam, comment moderation has been enabled. I will try to approve comments promptly, but your patience is appreciated.
If you have technical trouble leaving your comment, please email it to:
marc_olson@hotmail.com
and I will post it for you.